The Bible and World War One

Conscientious Objectors

Bert Brocklesby was a 25-year-old teacher from Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He came from a close-knit family of four boys whose father, the local grocer, was a leading light in the Methodist church.

Bert himself was the organist and choirmaster at the chapel. And before the war he also became a lay preacher.

In January 1915 he preached a sermon that would define his life forever. At his home church he preached on Romans 12:19-21, ‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, sayeth the Lord.’

Bert’s message was very different from that being preached elsewhere. The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Leonard Burrows preached in a neighbouring village, ‘We are in the right and God will befriend the righteous’.

People stopped Bert in the streets of Conisbrough and asked him when he was going to join up. He said it was against the Ten Commandments, to which he got some fairly unprintable retorts.

Two of his brothers had signed up, but the whole family nonetheless supported Bert’s stance.

At his tribunal in Doncaster in 1916 Bert was asked, ‘Supposing you were in a corner with your back to the wall and six men were before you with open sword of fixed bayonet. Would you not do something if you had a revolver in your hand?’

Bert replied, ‘The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill”. I take it that it is better to be killed than kill anyone else.’

Bert was ordered into the Non-Combatant Corps, a group that was exempt from fighting duties but still under the direction of the Army.

While many conscientious objectors found this a reasonable outcome, Bert thought that this was the Army under another name and refused to join. His mother was sent a white feather. His father was urged to disown him. But they stood by him, despite disagreeing with his views.

Bert was arrested for refusing to obey orders and sent to Richmond Castle, the base for the 2nd Northern Non-Combatant Corps. Here he was held with 15 others, later known as the Richmond Sixteen.

They refused to do military drills, did not wear uniform and were put on a bread-and-water diet in detention cells.

Later in 1916 they were taken to Boulogne and stationed with soldiers. Initially, the soldiers gave them short shrift. But they maintained regular prayer and after a few days the mockery turned to respect as the soldiers evidently appreciated the sincerity of these men.

In June they were all sentenced to death, but had their sentences commuted to 10 years in prison.

Bert spent time in Winchester and Maidstone prisons before being released in 1919.

It was impossible for him to live and work in Conisborough again. He first went to Russia, and then to Vienna to work on war relief.

Later Bert became a missionary in the East African island of Pemba before returning to England as a teacher. He continued to campaign for peace, staging a vigil by the war memorial in Scunthorpe in 1963 to mark the bombing of Hiroshima. 

John Broom

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